Driving over the wine-red hills with Homer on tape

By Andrei Codrescu

An ancient Greek audience listened all night to Homer. In the morning, minds full of Calypso’s sinuous hips, Circe’s beguiling sigh-songs of globular delight, the clang of terrible weapons, and, most of all, a world-classical hangover, your typical Homeric audience straggled home through the dew-fresh grass of the Aegean hills, transformed into believers in epic poetry. Before sleep, they rested their bloodshot eyes upon the wine-purple sea and beseeched Athena to kill them on the spot.

We were not your typical Homeric audience for one reason only: we were driving and drinking no wine. Still, for 11 hours we listened spellbound to the incantatory waves of Professor Stanley Lombardo’s voice telling the stories of Odysseus and his Odyssey and then those of the Trojan heroes of “The Illiad.” Professor Lombardo translated anew the immortal epics and immersed himself so deeply in their world his voice sounded as believable as the hills and valleys we crossed. His voice knows the tales and their enduring charms, and sounds for all the world like an ancient bard’s. Homer himself couldn’t have done better. In English no less, millennia later.

The difference, as I’ve said, was that no wine passed our lips, and much wine passes the lips of Homeric heroes. In whatever situation Odysseus finds himself, whether it’s a wrathful storm stirred up by divine jealousy, or a pleasant surprise feast given in his honor by people awed by his tales, wine is called for and drunk.

When supplies run low, first wine, then oil are carefully measured. Homer himself, in recounting both the tales and the adventures of his hero, calls for libations before each new story. Between the libations required by Homer and those required by Odysseus or Odysseus’s hosts, flows a prodigious river of wine.

Listening to the ritual repetitions of raising the wine cups on rosy-fingered dawns upon wine-purple seas, I had the distinct impression that Greek audiences listening to Homer raised wine cups to their lips every time wine was invoked.

Listeners to a nightlong marathon of Homeric tale-telling must have emptied carafes and amphorae of Dyonisian brew. They drank right along with Homer and Homer’s heroes until the rosy fingers of dawn pinched their bursting heads in a vice. Spectating is not without price. Professor Lombardo’s voice, no less than Homer’s, beguiled us to toast and we could feel, even as we drove through Greek-like Arkansas hills dotted with ancient wandering sheep, the deep urge to take long and refreshing gulps of vino. Had we been listening around a bonfire, we’d have doubtlessly done just that. As it were, we consoled ourselves with flashbacks.

The Greek world, rife with wandering nymphs and spotted with magic isles over a sea populated by creatures who have long ago taken refuge in our unconscious, is still connected to us by a flowing river of wine. Lombardo’s voice is an agile rowboat on this river, bobbing easily over narrative peaks and shaded lyrical valleys. It occurs to me that in Homer’s day, the flow of the wine may have also been the monopoly of the storyteller. The Homeric wine concession paid for the storyteller’s travels. Then as now, storytellers need a sideline, and none is better than wine when the story itself is full of wine.

Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Illiad,” as audio books, translated by Stanley Lombardo, with an introduction and synopses read by Susan Sarandon. (Parmenides Publishing).